Saturday, June 11, 2011

God and the Meaning of Life

In the first chapter of Value and Virtue in a Godless Universe Erik Wielenberg considers three arguments that render life in a Godless universe meaningless. He ultimately rejects them all by offering three different "theories of meaning" by Aristotle, Richard Taylor, and Peter Singer.

The Meaning of Life
Wielenberg identifies three ways in which life may have meaning. It may have supernatural meaning that is "purpose that is assigned by a supernatural being." Or it may have external meaning, when a life has meaning if "the universe is better than it would have been had the life not been lived." Or finally internal meaning. If a life has internal meaning; "the individual is better off having lived than had that person never existed at all. Moreover, the life is one in which something worthwhile is accomplished it is a life that has a point. It is the urge to live a life like this that is revealed in the expression "I want to do something with my life.""
Though there are reasons to squabble with these definitions of meaningfulness, for the purpose of the summary I will assume that they are for the most part correct, which I think is true.

Arguments that Life Lacks Internal Meaning Without God
Wielenberg gives three arguments which conclude that life is meaningless without God, they are the final outcome argument, pointless existence argument, and the nobody of significance cares argument.

Final Outcome Argument (Hereafter FOA)
FOA goes something like this: if there is no God, and no immortality then the final outcome of life makes it meannigless. Because the universe will inevitable become extinct, either in a heat-death or something else like life will lead to nothing of significance or value. Because everyone dies life is absurd.

Pointless Existence Argument (Hereafter PEA)
PEA follows the proposition that "life only has meaning if it has supernatural meaning." Without an assigned goal by a supernatural agent life is pointless.
Nobody of Significance Cares Argument (Hereafter NSCA)
NSCA can be put as follows: "a life has meaning only if a suitable significant being cares about or takes an interest in that life." If God loves us life has meaning, but if she doesn't exist she can't love or care for us thus life is meaningless.

In response to these arguments Erik ponders offers three different theories of meaning

Creating Your Own Meaning
Wielenberg begins with Richard Taylor's response to these arguments in the last chapter of his book Good and Evil. The sum of Richard's view is that life can have internal meaning if a persons desires and activities correspond with each other. He mentions the famous case of Sisyphus. Sisyphus was condemned by the Gods and "sentenced to an eternity of frustration." He must roll a large rock up a hill for all eternity, and every time he gets to the top of the hill, the stone rolls down again. Clearly this is not initially a meaningful activity. But Taylor asks what if Sisyphus enjoyed rolling the rock up the hill? What if he had the desire to roll the rock up the hill for eternity and this desire was satisfied by his activity? Then Taylor argues Sisyphus's life would have internal meaning.
To FOA and NSCA Taylor would respond that the end situation and whether any one cares or not has no relevance to meaning, they represent improper criterion. To PEA Taylor would say that you create your own meaning, and don't need supernatural guidance or commands when doing so.
But Taylor's account is clearly not without problems, if objective values exist then some things are meaningful whereas others probably are not. Wielenberg has us compare the case of a jazz musician who loves what he does and a grinning excrement eater who feels the same about his existence. Even though both of their desires correspond nicely with their activity it seems as though the jazz musician lives a much more meaningful life. If objectively some activities are better then others then it would certainly be the case that being a jazz musician is better then being a excrement eater, whether you like it or not. Thus if  objective values exist we have good reason to say that Taylor's account is wrong. If there are no such things, then Taylor's idea of meaningfulness can be of use.

Meaning Through Eliminating Pain
The second conception of how a human life can have internal meaning is constructed by Peter Singer and analyzed by Wielenberg. Singer's view is that "we can live a meaningful life by working towards goals that are objectively worthwhile." Singer takes pain to be intrinsically bad, and thus the elimination of pain is objectively worthwhile. As Erik explains "At the heart of Singer's view then, is this principle:
(S) An activity of S's, A, has internal meaning for S just in case (i) in doing A, S is trying to accomplish goal G, (ii) G is objectively worthwhile, and (iii) A in fact leads to G."

So a life is meaningful for a person who is spends their life trying to eliminate pain. Under Singer's view a life could also have internal meaning for a person who spends their life trying to create pleasure for other people, as long as that pleasure is objectively worthwhile.
In reply to FOA Singer can respond that that argument fails because it arbitrarily puts to much emphasis on the future as opposed t other present. He in fact says this
"We should not, however, think of our efforts as wasted unless they endure forever, or even for a very long time. If we regard time as a fourth dimension, then we can think of the universe, throughout all the times at which it contains sentient life, as a four-dimensional entity. We can then make that our-dimensional world a better place by causing there to be less pointless suffering in one particular place, at one particular time, than there would otherwise have been...We will have had a positive effect on the universe."
Wielenberg quotes Paul Edwards who says, that FOA fails because of a "curious and totally arbitrary preference of the future to the present." PEA fails because it doesn't matter whether eliminating suffering is mandated by God or not. It is still objectively worthwhile. And to NSCA Singer can say that actually significant beings do care! The beings whose suffering is being decreased care very much indeed and surely they are significant! 
So although Singers theory could use a bit more support it comes out as a substantial improvement over Taylor's.

Intrinsically Good Activity
Wielenberg finishes with Aristotle's view. "Aristotle divides activities into two categories--those that are good because of what they produce, and those that are good in and of themselves." His "insight" is "Some activities are intrinsically good." That is these activities are good even if they lead to nothing of value. So "That suggests a third way of bringing internal meaning to ones life: Engage in intrinsically good activities, activities that are worth doing for their own sake." I think this is a satisfying idea of meaning, but are their such activities that are intrinsically good? I am not sure if there are, to be more specific I am strictly agnostic about the manner. I don't think there are any good reasons for thinking there are not intrinsically good activity's or very good reasons for thinking that their are. Perhaps the burden of proof falls on the person who claims that their are such values? At any rate Wielenberg lists includes such activities as "falling in love, engaging in intellectually stimulating activity, being creative in various ways, experiencing pleasure of various kinds, and teaching." How do you find these intrinsic activities and values? He suggests using "a version of G. E. mores isolation test... To see if an activity is intrinsically good, consider whether you would find it worthwhile even if it had absolutely no consequences." Aristotle's theory can dispense with the arguments against meaning in a godless universe in a similar way that the previous theories did so; FOA, PEA, NSCA all do not use the proper criteria of meaning and are not relevant. I think the challenge of this idea is to somehow show more conclusively that their are intrinsic activities. Either way whether God exists or not has nothing to do with whether there are or not. Thus this idea can be seen as a useful theory of meaning in a Godless universe.

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